Avatar: James Cameron’s Big Brass Balls… in Amazing 3-D

Avatar movie poster. Photo: avatarmovie.webs.comWarning: Spoiler Alert. Sketchy bits of the story are herein revealed.

I’m still feeling a little dazed and pummeled from last night’s screening of Avatar, for a fairly broad variety of reasons. It’s partly from the eye-ravishing overall visuals; partly from the undeniably cool (but almost needlessly excessive) excursion into the realms of theatrical 3-D; partly from how dizzyingly quickly the damn-near three hour movie seemed to fly by; partly from all the head-wobbling stuff that made little or no sense (but still didn’t seem to stall the works all that much); and partly from James Cameron’s balls continually hitting me in the face. Yes, I will elaborate.

Even when you’ve already got a showoff bandolier of industry shaping blockbusters slung across your directorial chest, it takes some mighty big brass clankers to even talk about your newest cinematic venture the way Cameron talks about Avatar. This is, he reminds us, the movie he would have made in the late 90s…but for the woeful state of film-making tech at the time, which had yet to catch up to the visions of “synthetic” (computer-generated) actors dancing in James Cameron’s head.

That’s big, blustery, important sounding talk all right… the digital hell of it is, Mr. Cameron apparently was, and is, absolutely right: There’s just no way this jaw-droppingly immersive, blue-skinned baby would have flown even four years ago, let alone ten (and now that it’s here, let’s all pause to watch the virtual representation of James Cameron happily driving the first of what will certainly be a finite number of nails into the coffin of our quaint present day notion of real (flesh and blood)"’movie stars." But that’s another article entirely).

Avatar. Photo: avatarmovie.webs.comAvatar gives us ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), paralyzed from the waist down, a relatively soft-spoken jarhead whose Semper is still so Fi that he resolutely rolls into the next, quasi-military phase of his tumultuous life in a wheelchair (into a soldiered-up base camp on an alien planet four light-years from Earth, no less). He’s been selected by the ‘RDA’—the blandly-ominous Resources Development Agency, a sort of heavily-armed NGO from Hell, except it’s from, y’know, us — for the so-named Avatar program, on an Earth-sized moon orbiting an Alpha Centauri gas giant; the world in question is called Pandora, and among its abundant, exotic (and often dangerous) indigenous flora and fauna are the more or less humanoid Na’vi (a race of sentient, 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned, tribal warrior/hunter tree-hugger types who soon — collectively and quite unsubtly — function as the film’s thematic stand-ins for any third, fourth or fifth world group of people in history who ever had their asses handed to them by a Big Old Mean More-Technologically-Advanced Superpower.)

The titular Avatars are "shell" Na’vi bodies — genetically cooked up from a gumbo of human and Na’vi DNA — suited to Pandora’s environment, and meant to be remotely ‘piloted’ by human Avatar Program candidates (they’re also intended to facilitate clandestine human infiltration of the Na’vi society, although the Na’vi seem largely hip to the ruse from the outset). Seems the extremely nature conscious Na’vi — who worship an all-life-interconnected Gaian deity called Eyra — happen to be sitting on a massive deposit of insanely precious ‘Unobtanium’ (they actually call the unspecified resource by this name throughout the film)… and the greedy, gun-packing humans want the harmonious, blue-skinned savages off their precious land, pronto (Again: James Cameron 1, Subtlety 0).

Avatar. Photo: avatarmovie.webs.comAlthough Jake Sully starts his Avatar Program mission among the Na’vi as a disguised infiltrator in a remotely-controlled body, he soon becomes attached to a willful Na’vi female warrior (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek‘s Lt. Uhura)… and shortly thereafter begins to question his mission, and in fact just which world he wants to belong to. Sit tight, moviegoers. At the end of the filmmaking equation, James still knows what gets your blood pumping. Soon you’ll have the rainforest-razing, beeping oversized military bulldozers, the gunship-mounted rocket-pods, the bipedal ‘mechs,’ the bows and arrows, the flying four-eyed dragons and all the tense, epic, lopsided, asymmetrical warfare you can eat.

Any half-aware viewers who see Avatar will instantly be able to pinpoint the One Influential Movie it most strongly echoes… and they’ll all be wrong. Or perhaps the issue is that they’ll all be right. Avatar takes such a gargantuan, multilayered bite out of the entire cinematic multiverse that it’s hard not to find some high profile film that you can closely compare its signature themes and directorial riffs to (and half of the films that most readily come to mind will probably be previous Cameron films). The cocksure, scuffed-hardware, absolutely perfect military deadpanisms nestle comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most corny, pat lines of dialogue; characters that were templates four movies ago nevertheless seem like comfortable oases between some of the more arid stretches of storytelling. It’s True Titanic Lies of Aliens one minute, and Terminators in the Judgment Day Abyss the next and… I don’t know… maybe Dances With Na’vi both before and after that. Those badass, 22nd-century swivel-rotor gunships look like the coolest parts of Aliens and sound exactly like the nastiest parts of Vietnam; and you bet your ass it’s on purpose.

Avatar. Photo: avatarmovie.webs.comI’ve left off detailing the much-ado-about-seemingly-everything visuals up to this point mostly as a tribute to Cameron’s power to draw us in. If this isn’t the most thorough, textured, exhaustive onscreen world ever presented, I’ll eat our current one. Pandora’s elaborate natural motifs and chains of wildlife—from the tiny spiral wings of insects that seem lifted from one of Da Vinci’s more fever-induced sketchbooks to the medium sized spirals of retracting flora to the massive-scale twists of a towering baobabesque tree the size of a mountain combine with fluid and utterly convincing stereoscopic animation that’s so good that…. well, that one can quickly stop paying undue attention to it. The same goes, thankfully, for the Na’vi characters. They’re blue, they move smoothly enough, they look kind of like Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver — and now we can get on with enjoying this epic if occasionally-goofy movie, yes?

Avatar. Photo: avatarmovie.webs.comEven as it clips along, Avatar does throw a lot of goofy stuff in our faces, and is better labeled ‘science fantasy’ than as proper ‘science fiction’: The justification of those majestic, mystical ‘floating mountains’ that hover in Pandora’s sky, like something from the cover of a 70s rock album? Um… it’s something to do with a ‘flux matrix,’ and even though the mountains float, the waterfalls streaming off them still plummet straight down, and rotor gunships still have to battle gravity, and… well, the flux matrix screws up human targeting computers, so that’s handy, innit? The struggle of primitive, bow toting natives against bipedal military "mechs" is dramatic as hell against that soaring score… so you’re going to want to let some of the combat-physics slide… cool? And just why we should feel any dramatic anxiety about our hero tooling around in a remote body that can apparently be shuffled off at will with no harm to the ‘pilot,’ if things start getting dicey on the native front? All I’m saying is… don’t think about any of it too much. Just let James Cameron tell a ripping, gripping, emotional, analogous tale of man’s better angel — spiritual nature — as it battles his base demon — greedy mortal coil. And marvel at just how much of this movie’s staggering world was conjured from thin digital air; and imagine where this kind of increasingly-unfettered dream-conjuring will take us in another year, or five, or ten.

And one other thing: Before it came to mean ‘a digital representation,’ or ‘a virtual presence,’ the term avatar referred to a descent to our earthly plane from the unknown realms above.

43 Comments

  1. lol many blue chicks i whouldin’t mind climeing LMFAO!

  2. umm the reason why they float is in the rocks like when 2 negitve or 2 possitve sides of a magnit touch they push away?. also if you watch it mess’s with the computers on the ships no radar no locking missiles thats why sully decided to fight there.

    why can’t any of you just have a option and not “this is how it is and i’am right jump on my bandwagon so i can feel better about myself pfft grow up.

    lol hell my grandmom had a better option ” i didin’t like it to out there for me” lol

    i noitce its like the same pepole are commenting the same way on everything thesedays. i mean yah hollywood is lacking in greativeness but holymossepissbatman look at older moives its the samething. and these type of peps are the boring,dry,optionated types. look at your moives and go back and read reviews and comments about them same kind of smack.

  3. all the arguments about technology vs primative seem to be somewhat missing the point, honestly.

    the movie seemed to stress to me more that the indigenous people’s culture had a right to be respected and maintained, not simply destroyed. even without the plotline involving the must-have ore and the ensuing destruction of the species’ central cultural epicenter, for lack of better term, the movie’s scientist’s were pretty adamant about responsibly integrating into their lives and culture.

    those scientists even set up a school, which indicates to me less a desire for the film to say that advanced tech is bad, but rather that the introduction of new ideas should be gradual and involve true knowledge interchange instead of ramming it down the natives’ collective throats. if that had been maintained by the expedition team they probably would have come to terms with the natives and some sort of mining compromise.

    after all, we didn’t see the natives fight back until, culturally speaking, the human expedition pulled an “oh no you didn’t” of epic proportions.

  4. I loved Avatar, but found it oddly retro-futuristic. The humans, as has been pointed out, have the really amazing ability to create the titular Avatar bodies (pretty impressive bio tech), yet still have a largely contemporary tech level. No apparent A.I., no visible sign of advanced nanotechnology, no great use of robotics aside from power suits, no grand advancements in intelligence augmentation, etc. Pretty much a very near future vision treading water for decades.

    If I were a fan fic writer (not), and interested in more contemporary science fiction (am), which includes post-singularity type musings like Ken Macleod’s “Newton’s Wake”, I would try to paint the biosphere of Pandora as the result of a designed terraforming effort. A fully designed environment (which it happens to be in truth), designed as a honey trap for humanity placed as close as possible to Earth to try to teach us some kind of lesson.

    The aliens of Pandora lead a primitive lifestyle, yet do not harbor great interest in the comforts of technology because their carefully designed biology grants them many advantages over our own world’s version of primitive. These blue folk are all super model skinny, tough, beautiful, and gifted with a true and measurable afterlife. They don’t seem to have massive problems with internal parasites, visible disease, or other downsides that our technology helps to ameliorate. They are what we would want life to be like if we wanted to live in primitive conditions. All the good, little of the bad – except getting eaten by a Thanator – that gets you laughed at in the afterlife.

    So how, in Avatar’s timeline, did humanity miss out on Singularity type technological advances? My musing is that it was a hidden singularity. Most of the humans missed out while the mind children slipped off Earth to play. One of those playthings turns out to be Pandora and its biotech Paradise. A fully simulated / designed biosphere emplaced on that terraformed (Pandoraformed?) moon. Basically showing off. From the Unobtainium,to Ey’wa to the biologic USB ports, the whole of it is a masterwork, like a Faberge Egg, with surprises inside for those who can see them.

  5. Are you folks really discussing the storytelling capability of the guy who wrote Titanic?
    I mean, really?
    This is a guy whose heroine is so in love with the guy who saves her from getting chopped to bits by a GIGANTIC ship’s propeller that she lets him hang off the edge of her floating door until he turns into a Jackcycle.
    This is the guy who frames a current movie in a flashback where “rosebud” becomes a massive blue jewel that is clearly worth major $$$. Then “rosebud” gets dumped overboard by the whackjob old lady who tells the flashback story.
    Yes, he’s an awesome filmmaker.
    Storyteller? Eh. Not so much.

  6. I understand this movie is a technological leap. I also heard that watching this movie at an IMAX theater is close to immersion in the planet itself.

    I can see from some of the previous comments that the earth is not saved from global warming, so this movie is a waste of time and money.

    Is it worth seeing?

    • Yes

    • The movie is worth seeing – particularly in IMAX – because it is gorgeous seeing. It really is a delight to watch and the experience is not likely to be fully captured on the home television or the desktop monitor. Seen that way, all you will probably have is a very medium-grade story and a lot of confusion as to how this film made a billion dollars in less than 3 weeks.

    • No.

      (I’m serious)

  7. Avatar nails the post singularity zeitgeist in having its virtual blue performers being themselves “avatars” of human actors, through exquisite technical ability and great performances by Zoe Saldana and a great cast, these Pandora Humanoids are more human than humans.
    It’s what many humans would like to be, in full connection with nature, jacked in, elegant, dynamic and living free.

    We cannot see the future past the singularity only imagine it.

    Kudos to Mr. Cameron and 21st century film history IMHO.

    • Let me get this right. There is a fully integrated information exchange and the best these guys can come up with is a stone age society. They don’t even have a wheel. No advanced metalurgy, no advanced traps or weaponry. Just stone aged bows and arrows. So there is no practical interchange of information just impractical and unimportant information.
      It is almost human….the full set of physics texts, chemistry texts and mathematics texts can be downloaded in two minutes yet the average human finds downloading an hour worth of “I Love Lucy” as of greater value.

      • To let the interconnected and robustly functioning natural ecosystems do most
        of the work for them, while they sit around and engage in hunting that is way more
        fun than video games, rave-like trance-dances, and mind-meld sex.

        Who wants to live in a modern concrete jungle commuting in traffic jams compared to that?

        • “while they sit around and engage in hunting that is way more
          fun than video games, rave-like trance-dances, and mind-meld sex”

          No.

          “Who wants to live in a modern concrete jungle commuting in traffic jams compared to that?”

          Uhm… me?

  8. Cameron has a big ego. He’s made a world class bet that he can spend this much money on a project and get it back – win the bet. It’s the equivalent of James Bond going all in at the roulette table at Monte Carlo. To assure a win he has analyzed big money making movies of the past, isolated elements that made them big money makers, then put all these elements in one movie. Avatar is a dedicated money making machine, not a work of art.

    I disagree with Heinlein. The type to whom this joining the noble savage tribe story appeals love themselves and hate the group they belong to. They imagine a fantastic new in-group they can belong to and inevitably picture themselves as being a high caste member of the new in-group. Sometimes it’s an entirely romanticized version of a real society, sometimes it is a wholly fictional one. This kind of thing goes back at least to ancient Rome. I also wonder if there is some root in evolutionary biology. Individual members of primate groups often leave their own tribe/troupe and enter another. A consistent behavior like this is unlikely to be a random thing. I wonder if there is some the-grass-is-greener-in-the-other-group drive in the primate brain.

    • “The type to whom this joining the noble savage tribe story appeals love themselves and hate the group they belong to. They imagine a fantastic new in-group they can belong to and inevitably picture themselves as being a high caste member of the new in-group.”

      It’s not about hating what your group did or even trying to rectify it: it’s all about getting “da minority cred”, because in their minds, the “noble savage” will always be inferior to said “YT”. The thought of being a deity, someone popular or a Messiah among a group of “lower people” turns them on greatly. Don’t pretend man: They are exactly like the group that they claim to “hate”.

      “This kind of thing goes back at least to ancient Rome.”

      You got that one right. A group of people hell bent on colonization would think like that.

      “I also wonder if there is some root in evolutionary biology.”

      I also wonder if you might be an upperclass emo trying to blame your idiocy on nature/evolution. You know, “it’s in X’s nature”?

      “A consistent behavior like this is unlikely to be a random thing. I wonder if there is some the-grass-is-greener-in-the-other-group drive in the primate brain.”

      You’re right, it isn’t random. It’s called the “YT Syndrome”, usually found among bored and stupid upperclass kids who are BAWWWing over the fact that despite having everything, they are still unhappy. Get over yourself, you’re not the “Chosen One”.

  9. Once upon a time, a guy made this movie. It was the late 70s, and when the movie hit theaters, it was almost universally panned. Today, it is one of the top-grossing films of all time, but back then it was recognized as a space-opera version of Akira Kurosawa’s _The Hidden Fortress_ and dismissed by critics.

    Audiences, though, loved it. _Star Wars_ remains to this day one of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time. The name sells it – even the recent travesties of films have a franchise of DVDs, video games, books, and other merchandise making billions for LucasFilm. And yes, _Star Wars_ got the same kinds of reviews _Avatar_ seems to be getting as far as plot and setting.

    What made _Star Wars_ such a hit was that it was the first movie to use computers to create the effects. No longer were movies limited to Ray Harrihausen monsters (see _Clash of the Titans_ for an example and try not to laugh too hard). _Star Wars_ revolutionized film by being the granddaddy of CGI.

    I thought _Avatar_ was going to be as stupid as Ewoks. But when I think back to those terrible reviews, which seem to be echoed in reviews of _Avatar_, I must confess I am now interested. The plot is stupid, but if a stupid plot brings us a whole new way of making films, well, it’s still a trailblazer.

  10. Two words ” Fern Gully”

    • Yeah, the movie where they ride around on a bat with wires coming out of its head? The movie where a fantastically huge bulldozer threatens the fairies’ world tree? The one where the magically transformed hero and his fairie girlfriend frolic in bioluminescent jungle ponds?

      I’m SO glad Cameron updated Fern Gully for my adulthood. 🙂

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